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Oh, this is PRICELESS.

April 23, 2009

I read today that Nepal is expanding cellphone coverage to the top of Mount Everest.

How innnnnteresting.

First off, is there no place on earth that could possibly need it more? For the people who treat climbing Mt. Everest as some sort of high-end bungee jump (with more trash), is a satellite phone really going to set them back that much more?

Actually, wait a sec — is there no other technology in Nepal that could use more support? As I write, most of Nepal is subject to 16-hour rolling blackouts EVERY DAY. We’re not talking just for poor people, or in the most remote areas. My dad’s friend and colleague Shisir Khanal writes, “I am up at 2 AM checking emails as today it was the mid-night when electricity would be in our area.”

In my class on the digital divide we’ve spent half our time simply trying to decide what type of divide hurts the most: poor vs. rich, rural vs. urban, disabled vs. able-bodied, female vs. male. It pains me that so much of the discussion has to happen because the prevailing practice is simply wrong.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Aaron permalink
    April 24, 2009 9:01 am

    Well, it is Nepal Telecom doing the build, so I don’t think it’s up to them to get the country’s electricity up and running (they probably suffer from outages just as much as everyone else). And it’s not like they’re building on Everest; they’re putting a tower near the base camp, and I’m assuming shooting one radio right at the peak. The question is: do they build with their current technology, or go with LTE?

    • April 24, 2009 10:27 am

      NT vs. rolling blackouts notwithstanding, what do you think that the novelty or notoriety of this tower could do for the rest of the country? Do you think it’s a reasonable accommodation for the tourists that bankroll a lot of needed services, or could the labor and services serve Nepal better elsewhere? (Zaph, what’s the meaning of life?)

      • Aaron permalink
        April 24, 2009 11:48 am

        Apart from the notoriety, it’s serving a spot where there will be high end cell phone users. Sat phone dollars go to sat phone operators; Nepal roaming dollars stay home when the fatcats phone home. You could probably pay for the cell tower based on the earnings from the roaming charges. I’d have to see what the overall teledensity was for Nepal to say whether or not the site was optimally placed. As to the other potential services, again, NTC is a private company (though they haven’t formally sold stock yet, according to wikipedia) , so their capital budgeting is properly focused on providing more telecom services to Nepal. I wouldn’t discount what that provides to the country overall.

      • Aaron permalink
        April 24, 2009 11:48 am

        Also, I’d fail to live up to my namesake if I didn’t answer: 42.

  2. Squid permalink
    April 24, 2009 1:37 pm

    I think you make a fundamental mistake that’s all too common in these sorts of policy debates: assuming that Nepal Telecom’s mission is to save the country. It isn’t. Their mission is to provide communications services to their market.

    Actually, their mission is to provide a good return on investment to their owners; providing telecom services is just a means to that end.

    • April 24, 2009 2:03 pm

      Nepal Telecom is by no means aiming to save the country, just as the tanking US airline industry is obviously not aiming to provide service to as many people as possible at the best price by converting more of its planes and coach seat spaces to ginormous Faberge egg-like luxury pods. (But I digress…) However, who is their market? If it’s not the Nepalese people — whether NT chooses to serve fewer, richer customers or a greater number of less-affluent customers — why bother naming themselves as such?

      • Aaron permalink
        April 24, 2009 2:48 pm

        Well, it is the Nepalese people who will be predominantly served by the cell towers. The fact that there is on tower in a national build plan servicing a tourist destination isn’t all that surprising. I think the idea that it’s going “all the way up Everest!” is skewing people’s perceptions. There’s going to be a serving cell near Everest’s popular base camp, which might cost with construction and equipment maybe about $500K (I’m guessing it would be considerably cheaper given labor and real estate being less expensive, but there might be some unique challenges due to the environment that drive the cost back up). I’d have to look into more about the project, but I’m assuming they know that there a lot of foreign cell phone users coming to the base camp. I came up with about 130K per year for the site to earn it’s investment in 5 years with a good return. If they make a buck a minute for the roaming charges (after fees), that’s about 6 hours of roaming usage everyday to make a profit. All that’s a WAG, but my guess it’s a conservative one, and the site makes money which in turn can be used to build out the rest of the Nepal network. The rich subsidize the poor, and it’s all done using private market decisions. I bet it delivers more overall good than an IMF loan.

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